The crime of the century is in progress as Robert Daley's new novel, "The Dangerous Edge," begins. Beneath the Banque de Nice et de la Co te d'Azur, six French mobsters and six soldiers of fortune are busy sacking the vault. This is the third night of their penetration. The booty will electrify the world.

Heading the assault is Lambert, the failed playwright and ex-GI, still on the Riviera eight years after World War II has ended. "LA COMEDIE HUMAINE CONTINUE"--the human comedy continues, Lambert scrawls on the vault wall. The raiders depart but a very fine book has only begun.

Lambert, or "The Brain" as the French press dubs him, will continue to loot his adopted nation, his wife's emotions, the French underworld, an American congressman and even his own good luck as his life on the edge progresses. Skillfully combining bravado and blackmail, he will enthrall the reader while one by one his less-fortunate and far-less-intelligent compatriots are apprehended by the plodding intelligence and time-tested police methods of Bellarmine, the Surete' Commissaire in charge of the case.

Daley, who has worked as a deputy police commissioner in New York City as well as a New York Times correspondent in France, and who has written other police books such as "Target Blue," "To Kill A Cop" and "Prince of the City," knows the Riviera and the underworld, the gritty characters and their tight rules and system of punishments.

Yet crime fiction abounds with technicians, writers who parade their knowledge of bad guy and police methods in harsh language but in the end lack purpose in their writing, or point of view, or plain soul. Not so with "The Dangerous Edge," which rises above these pitfalls and is given extra dimension by the author's feeling for setting and an ultimate purity at the center of the book.

Consider the Riviera eight years after Germany's surrender. Americans loom as conquerers of a sort in France, where ex-GIs run cigarettes on old PT boats or sell guns to Arabs in Tangiers, where a congressman ex-general becomes part-owner of the biggest casino in town, where the chocolate bars and nylons distributed by liberating soldiers have grown into the multimillion-dollar Marshall plan.

Paris is uneasy at best with Bellarmine's pursuit of a potentially innocent American. Those dollars have been put in jeopardy, and the French in this book show their customary, stylishly disdainful subservience to whomever pays the bills.

But at the center of this cynicism we find a refreshing innocence--even in the weary seen-it-all personality of Bellarmine, who is still capable of gentleness and whose vulnerability is the more appreciated because he labors under no illusions in a harsh world.

Bellarmine the Inquisitor is thrown together with Lambert's wife Jacqueline, a total innocent desperate to believe her husband's evasions, who sleeps in the back of her little perfume shop and is torn apart by conflicting loyalties. Daley has created a psychological and moral triangle. The innocent wife, the idealistic but too-knowledgeable policeman, the sociopathic husband. Will Bellarmine and Jacqueline fall in love? More important, will they do so in a way they both respect, or will Lambert's ubiquitous presence sully them?

For, as Daley writes, "America, having saved the world, owned it. The green passport opened any door, permitted any excess, dominated the European continent as guns never had, and even bank vaults couldn't stop it." Drunk with this attitude, Lambert's plundering continues. And anyone who comes near him seems destined to fall over the dangerous edge except those who live by a different value system.

In the end, perhaps, the nostalgic ache for value comes from ourselves. There is something in Bellarmine, the 34-year-old cynical French cop who dislikes Americans, that epitomizes our idealistic past and propensity for self-loathing, our belief in that spark of moral simplistic goodness at our core.

And the danger in "The Dangerous Edge" goes far beyond Lambert's immediate safety problems, his ploys, lies and escapes. The danger is the potential extinguishing of Bellarmine's inner spark by himself, by his own power, by the easy excesses available to him, by his clumsiness with what he loves and by all the possibilities of vendetta.

In this fast-paced, well-constructed thriller, one finds a national soul in a French detective.